Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Literary Filtration System

At some point in the writing process, you revisit an awareness of how vital filtration is.  Whether the work is nonfiction such as a review or an essay, or the inventive exploration of fiction, you're in the metaphoric sense thrown from the horse you're riding by being hit with another metaphor, the low-hanging branch.

The hanging branch is often one of the first two or three paragraphs.  Knowing this, you are not surprised; in fact, you tend to watch for its appearance in its most common form, the generality as opposed to the specific example.  There are more treacherous versions of this low-hanging menace, such as your taking for granted that something you accept as a specific may not be so willing to show itself.  Worse yet, you may be in one of your explaining modes, looking for places to insert parenthetical phrases, translations of foreign words, or descriptions where you in effect refer to Shakespeare, the English writer.

A writer you once admired because even as an undergraduate he was selling adventure stories to the pulp magazines, gave you his secret.  Ed, for his name was indeed Ed, said the secret to being prolific and successful was to get everything down as quickly as possible without stopping to think about the consequences or remember how you'd used three or four words when one would have been enough.

You have in effect spent the balance of your writing life trying to adhere to that approach, even to the point of repeating it to some of your classes with evident conviction.  As you were to discover all too soon, the major point to Ed's logic was the relatively low pay, sometimes even a fraction of a cent a word, for pulp stories.

When you conflated this information with your eventual experience that it paid in one sense to use five or six words where one would do, you did your best to ignore Ed's advice and in the process build into your vocabulary certain words, such as somewhat or perhaps--"He was somewhat gruff in his manner."  "She was tall,  perhaps five ten."--to add weight.

This process brought you a possible thousand dollars over the years you wrote at that level, before a combination of your own eye and a few kindly editors reintroduced the argument that in one way or another, you must slow down a bit, listen to that inner voice when it tells you, stop, go back, you don't need that sentence or that verb tense.   You in particular want to avoid wherever possible using the passive voice.  The ball was hit by him for a home run.  The bank was robbed by him of several thousand dollars.

Here, in fact, is what you do most of the time.  Correct as you go.  There've  been too many times when you didn't and then, going back later to look for the scoundrel you knew was there, you couldn't find it, meaning that the solecism had camouflaged itself to your critical eye,  Not a healthy condition.

Another thing you do is start the new day by reading through what you did yesterday, catching additional solecisms that often cause you pain.

By the time you've completed a draft of anything, you've gone over it minimum four times, at which point you now find it comfortable to set the material aside for at least four days before looking at it again.

Some of this filtration process has been nagging at you since the horrible time some weeks ago when someone suggested this would be a splendid time to get some of your earlier things out on the market again in purely digital form.  The someone who suggested this allowed that you'd want to clean up some things, remove the occasional -ly adverb, tighten the dialogue.  You took a tentative look.  And yes, tentative was one of those revenue-increasing words.  "He cast a tentative look in her direction."  (You actually got paid for that once.  You hope it was only once.  Such revisiting of earlier, more hurried work, causes you to think about some kind of cosmic debt to charity building up, karmic payoff for so many excesses.)

Filtration has come to have a different meaning at this stage of the writing game.  You have to continue taking enormous bites out of the Universe, scooping in the details that call out to you, asking you to notice them.  The vivid ones remain, the tentatives and somewhats have no foreseeable shelf life.  But it all has to come in and--here's a keeper of a word--percolate.  Details need to earn their keep.

You've realized this in a painful number of ways but once again, the realization bears repeating (after all, repetition can be a part of the percolating process):  Writing began as a game because it seemed so much fun and the men and women whose work you so admired made the game seem such fun, something you could do virtually without thinking.

Then the activity became a habit, and you were screwed.  Difficult as you have come to see it in its expanding essence, the withdrawal is terrible.

You do need to check your filtration system from time to time, which is what you have done here.


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